Buju Banton Doesn't Want the Title of Icon, He's Just Happy to Be Making Music Again

Buju Banton
Shawn Theodore

Buju Banton

“God light a shine on we on our quest,” Buju Banton sings in his latest hit single, “Blessed.” Produced by the legendary Dave Kelly of Madhouse productions, the hardcore dancehall number is just one of many styles expressed on Buju’s long-awaited album Upside Down 2020, whose June 26 release represents the fulfillment of a major quest.

Buju has come a long way to reach this point, building an enviable catalog of classics over the course of a career that stretches back to the early ‘90s in Jamaica, and his songs are woven into the fabric of many fans’ lives. “It’s not an easy road,” he once sang. “Many see the glamour and the glitter so they think a bed a rose.” If the words ring true to listeners, the reality behind them really hit home for Buju, who was imprisoned nearly 10 years ago on a dubious drug charge.

Songs such as “Buried Alive” on his new album speak to the Grammy-winner’s inexpressible frustration during those difficult years. After touching people around the world, Buju lost the better part of a decade with family and loved ones, and was away from his beloved music.

Even the Stephen Marley-assisted "Yes Mi Friend," which serves as a modern remake to Bob Marley's 1973 classic "Duppy Conqueror," has sentimental value to the longtime friends. In 2011, while Banton was fighting his case, Marley put his house up for bail to help his troubled comrade. To punctuate their everlasting bond, they performed the song for the first time together that year. “It was very emotional," Marley describes to Billboard.

To say that his new project is highly anticipated is an understatement. The project’s 20 tracks reflect a diversity of styles and sounds to fully express the range of the artist’s abilities.

“Buju is a legend,” says Stefflon Don, the British-Jamaican MC who was invited to appear on Buju’s Long Walk to Freedom concert in Kingston, Jamaica, in March 2019, months after his release from prison. Buju became the first solo artist to sell out Jamaica’s National Stadium since Bob Marley performed there in 1978.

“It was surreal,” Stefflon remembers of the experience. “I really didn’t expect it. I feel like I am part of a legendary history.” Stef had the chance to work with Buju again, this time with the song “Call Me,” becoming the only female guest artist on his new album Upside Down 2020. “To get the call from him and talk about this feature was insane,” she says.

John Legend and Buju also have a fair amount of history between them. The two first teamed up on “Can’t Be My Lover,” a track from Legend’s 2008 album Evolver. “I’m just glad we got to collaborate again,” said Legend, the first Black man to earn the coveted EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony), in an Instagram Live chat.  “When Buju reached out to me and asked me to be part of this record, I was excited to do it. He’s an icon, of course, and it’s an honor for me to do another song with him.”

Buju downplayed Legend’s praised. “Hold on,” he said during the Instagram chat. “No icon! But I can clearly remember that night in Madison Square Garden when you brought me onstage.” Buju had joined Legend during his first headlining show at the venue and, as Legend tells it, “the whole place just lit up.”

Billboard caught up with Buju to speak on his new album Upside Down 2020, working with Pharrell, where he stands with Vybz Kartel and more.

Congratulations on this amazing project, Upside Down 2020. It must be a great feeling after all the hard work now that it’s finally out in the world.

It’s a beautiful feeling to know that I am home and to be able to reconnect with my music and the fans. So for the most part I’m elated about that. And I’m happy that the people get a chance to hear some new music from Buju Banton. So yes, it’s a good feeling.

“Memories” is a love song and that’s one thing I notice about Buju Banton: You give us emotional moments, love songs, sexy songs -- all these different vibes in your catalog. And going through the new album all these styles come out in different ways.

We have been taught to suppress our emotions and to act as if they are unnatural, to deny the things that really make us human. Therefore we try to exhibit those tendencies in our music. And the reality is we are all human -- sorry to break it to you. Some of us aren’t, but you won’t know in due time because everyone will be wearing their mask. So it’s difficult to know who is human from who’s not. But regardless of that, we always try to keep the music real [laughs] and we won’t stop.

You brought out Stefflon Don at your big show in Jamaica, and now you’ve collaborated with her on the song “Call Me.” How did this whole connection happen?

We have to foster great relationships and maintain them, and music is a superb vehicle for that transaction to take place. Stefflon Don is a tremendous artist. She represents the British culture from the Jamaican diaspora, and she’s the most vocal that I see out there. And I wanted to incorporate someone from the island of London, England, on the project. She’s an amazing person and it was beautiful working with her. So I had to invite her -- I had to.

What is the special relationship that Jamaican artists have with the U.K.?

Remember, we were colonized by the British. In fact we fought them for our freedom. Our freedom wasn't given to us -- it was taken. As a result of that, we have always been rebellious by nature, singing songs of rebellion and upliftment. And most of the brothers went to London and that spirit just went with them. So the music over there became a little bit different.

Boomshots recently reached out to Vybz Kartel, and he said some very nice things about you. Of course he started under the name Adi Banton before he was even called Vybz Kartel. He said the first time he heard your voice, he was “instantly captured,” and he considers himself to be one of your core fans.

Adi is a good and very talented artist, and he’s one of the most prolific hitmakers since the ’90s -- no doubt, hands down. Not discounting or taking anything from anyone who is doing their thing, but just to call true true. He’s extremely talented.

We had a very long talk a long time ago in a place called De La Vega City. I had just came back from Africa, and since then I am very sad in myself he didn't listen to what I was saying in that conversation. But Adi, he’ll be OK. He’ll be fine. He’s a good guy. Very good guy.

The last person I want to touch on is Pharrell. The Neptunes have collaborated with many Jamaican stars over the years -- Lady Saw, Beenie Man, Sean Paul. Is this the first time you’ve worked with Skateboard P?

It was a thrill. It was our first time going to the studio to do anything together. He came to Jamaica, came into my studio in Jamaica, and we played some tracks, hung out, hold a meditation musically. And we just found it. It just came to us natural, “Cherry Pie.” It was a great joy. This is what reggae music is about. We are always supposed to create more avenues for the music. More relationships can’t hurt us. It’s not for us, it’s for the music.

Whether it’s reggae, dancehall, hip-hop, R&B, or jazz, those musical genres don't always cross-pollinate. What makes those boundaries get crossed?

Music is an international language and a silent language that’s holding the heart. The stupid don’t really really understand the minds of man. They think they do, but when something touches your soul, you speak a different language.

When we first spoke, you told me that reggae was created by people who struggled and had everything against them. So when they sing, it relates a feeling, whatever that feeling may be, whether it’s excitement, joy, sadness …

It is one of the greatest conversation starters, and the day the music ceases to be that, that’s the day the music is no more. And that is why I’m urging all the youths them don't big up the concept that you can kill music. You can’t. You’re gonna go, and the music is still gonna be around. When the Romans decide that they’re gonna kill music, that’s why they start making these programs. Now you don't have no tangible instrument to remind you of what you are listening to. You have to go in the cloud.

A lot of people feel uncomfortable speaking about these things because they don't feel like they are part of …

The new trend? The political correctness? Maybe that’s what’s driving us backwards cause everybody just want to assimilate. What about the free thinkers? Nobody wants to think different, huh? OK.

The last time I spoke with Sean Paul, your name came up. He said he always looked up to you and tried to model himself after “big-voiced icons” like yourself. What is your relationship with Sean?

I don’t see myself as an icon. My relationship with Sean is extremely great. I support all my brothers, yes. Since I came back to Jamaica, we been hanging out. When I was in prison, he came to see me. We haven't tried to be all over each other constantly, crowding each other. But we know we are good and the love is great.

Now that your album is out there, I’m excited to hear what you do next. Do you feel like the pressure is on now that you’ve put out this body of work?

So what you want? You want a next album? Are you ready for a next album? That’s what you’re saying?

I don’t know! I’m ready for whatever you want to do.

Due to the fact that you guys are gatekeepers, I have to make sure you guys understand what’s going on, 'cause this consumer culture allows you to run through things at a rapid pace. So people are not listening to things -- they are devouring things. You are not slowing down to really and truly immerse yourself into what’s really good. You’re just chasing the next thing and chasing the next thing. ... And that’s the way I find the world ever since I came home. Everybody upside down.

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